Cambodia – looking back

Flossie Van Dyke, 31 January 2014

Cambodia street

When I moved to Southeast Asia earlier last year I had no idea what was waiting for me. Heat sweats, parasites and near-death traffic incidents weren’t exactly what I imagined when I decided to take up an internship at the Khmer Rouge Trials in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. But challenging as it was, I would count this experience as one of the best of my life: learning from the world’s top international criminal lawyers and living in the bustling heart of Cambodia was not an opportunity I’d ever expected to present itself on the 2013 calendar.

After saying a not-so-sad goodbye to Otago University’s 8th floor Richardson law library and the icebox lecture theatre they call Archway in 2012 I felt ready to take on something a little more stimulating than trawling through the Evidence Act. I was always interested in the idea of volunteering overseas in the human rights field and I used Law For Change’s Public Interest Law Handbook as a guide to find positions in that area. Not one to do things by halves, I applied for each and every internship I could find. This was an approach which, in hindsight, I would not recommend. The result was one unsuccessful interview, five rejections and 20 no-replies.

It was only when I emailed Kathy Scott Dowell, a contact in Law For Change’s Faces of Public Interest Law and current intern at the Khmer Rouge Trials that I got lucky. Three interns at the Court were leaving unexpectedly and urgent replacements were needed. Thirteen days later I was on a flight bound for the parasite-ridden, sweaty metropolis of Phnom Penh.

Desk in Cambodia with coconut drinkAlthough keen to ditch the lecture notes for a more practical legal experience, I was unprepared for the harrowing nature of the work I would encounter. Between 1975 and 1979 almost one third of Cambodians died from starvation, illness, torture, or execution under the Khmer Rouge Regime.  The Regime aimed to eliminate the upper-class and intellectuals through torture and execution. Other civilians were transported to cooperatives now referred to as ‘prisons without walls’. Millions died in these cooperatives from malnutrition, illness and barbaric torture. In 2001 an agreement between the United Nations and the Cambodian Government led to the establishment of the Court to try the leaders of the regime. I worked in the prosecution team preparing evidence, taking notes in court and researching the case file and judgments of other international criminal courts for submissions.

To say I was out of my depth would be an understatement. The one-semester Laws 479 International Human Rights Law paper I’d crammed for in third year did little to prepare me for working alongside the world’s top international criminal lawyers.  Coming from a common-law nation wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be at law school either—the Cambodian legal system is based on French civil law, a remnant of its history as a French colony.

Luckily, my work mates were passionate about sharing their knowledge. Our office operated on the principle of teamwork and without hierarchy. This was great for interns and allowed me to quickly gain essential skills (like tackling the enormous field of international criminal law). The nature of the work meant there was no such thing as the daily grind. The intricacies of the case were fascinating and the Court attracted legal gurus from across the world who were an inspiration to work with.

Cambodia street

Living in Cambodia wasn’t quite like being there on holiday. The temperature in April and May reached 38 degrees daily plus humidity which, according to the Real Feel App on my phone “felt like” 45 degrees. Sleeping in my own sweat is not a nightly experience I will miss. The traffic in Phnom Penh was like Auckland rush hour (minus traffic lights, stop signs and road markers) only it lasted all day. Catching the bus to the court – which took over an hour – felt like a daily near-death experience. Food was another challenge. I quickly learnt that the “eat everything you’re given” approach my parents drilled into me growing up was not applicable in South East Asia. I was infected with parasites in my first week and was on antibiotics for months after.

Even with its downsides, I love Phnom Penh. The city combines the rawness of an emerging economy with history, night life, first-class cuisine and the world’s friendliest people The Cambodian people were some of the most welcoming I have met—I won’t forget the number of times I was invited to people’s homes for dinner or given tours of the best beer gardens, street food stalls, or markets by proud locals.

Living in a neighbourhood with 20 other interns from around the world was like 2nd year on Castle Street except without budgets or bills to worry about: three course meals and drinks for $5 were a regular occurrence, as were weekend trips to Kampot River and Kep Beach. A mission to the Southern Islands for Khmer New Year could be compared to Dunedin O-Week if The Cook was a beach and thirty degrees warmer.

I’d like to give a big shout out to Law For Change for enabling me to take on this internship. You gave me the information to make the internship possible but more importantly revealed the depth of opportunities out there for everyone: without your resources I would not have thought this experience possible.

Flossie Van Dyke is a graduate at Bell Gully, one of New Zealand’s leading commercial law firms.